Monday, June 29, 2015

The Cowgirl Way

In the realm of cinema, can we all agree that "...And Gary Busey" is just about the most promising opening credit one can hope to see?

I thought so too.

Quick Plot: The town of Silver Creek is under attack during the Civil War, leaving its ladies raped, widowed, and childless. After watching her young son run into gunfire, a young woman named Hannah snaps and takes some vengeance on all of the men in range, including an apologetic officer. 

Three years later, Hannah has corralled her fellow ladies to form a gang of bank robbing cowgirls. The team includes the unstable and lovelorn Ellie (she of the modified Rachel haircut, which was all the rage in the 19th century), the mature but still sexy caretaker who goes by the name Widow (Amanda Donohoe from The Lair of the White Worm), and a whole bunch of other impeccably groomed beauties whose names don't ever seem to matter. The gals go from town to town in disguise, never leaving any solid trace of their identity or gender.

Everything changes when they set their targets on a town run by Sheriff Gary Busey. Well, Busey doesn’t really have anything to do with it (he gets a whopping 10 minutes or so of oddly subdued screentime) but his buddy Wes (former Beverly Hills, 90210 baddie Paul Johansson) has been on the lookout for the mysterious gunslingers who killed his pop way back in the fateful Silver City.

Before we can get a high noon shootout, Wes and Hannah have to fall in love (much to the chagrin of the jealous Ellie, who’d rather keep her cowgirl leader to herself). Widow takes up a rather sweet and satisfying relationship with Wes’s pal Jack, but double dates are thwarted by the minor inconvenience of crime, vengeance, and slow motion.

When I saw the fairly ridiculous title Hooded Angels on Netflix Instant, I eagerly added it to my queue because how could it not be terrible? A female western that no one’s ever heard of, a cast composed of no-name model actresses, the inclusion of Paul couldn’t be good, right?

I’m not going to lie: the most disappointing thing about watching Hooded Angels (aka Glory Glory) is that it’s...okay. We’re not talking Unforgiven levels of western grandeur, but truthfully, this is far more passable entertainment (and far more female positive entertainment) than the big budget, big failure that was Bad Girls.

Do most of the actresses speak with unexplained South African accents? Yes. Does the slow motion drama turn tragic deaths into rather amazing moments for giggles? Absolutely. Do I know who half of the characters are? Not in the least. But you know what? This is still...okay.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Hooded Angels to lovers of the American (or South African) western, but director Paul Matthews manages to put together a decent little story. The actresses are unreasonably gorgeous and do their best with their parts, even if none will ever make the short list for Academy Awards consideration. The film even manages to offer some genuine feminist solidarity, centering itself on a (somewhat) diverse group of women who banded together so that they would never be victims again. Sure, the camera enjoys highlighting their beauty, but overall, Hooded Angels respects its female characters and never exploits them. That’s not at all what I expected to find here, and it’s certainly a pleasant surprise.

High Points
Widow and Jack’s romance takes a secondary role to the action, but there’s a rather sweet little post coital conversation they have that has a wonderfully natural tone to it. There’s nothing revolutionary about it, but it’s simply nice to see a positive depiction of guilt-free sex between a slightly older woman and a friendly younger guy

Low Points
I suppose it would have been nice to know who all of those OTHER pretty cowgirls were  in order to make their stretched out slow motion deaths hit a little harder

Lessons Learned
Learning how to write will make you feel smarter

All deaths are better when shown in super slow motion

1870s era cowgirls had unlimited access to tweezers and salon waxes

Stray Observations
You now what I’m tired of? Characters hushing other dying characters. I get that the sentiment comes from a “don’t strain yourself” goal, but if I’m DYING, why not allow me to say what I need to say? 


Hooded Angels won’t ever be considered a classic, but it has plenty of pretty scenery and people getting shot off of horses to satisfy a certain kind of audience. If that’s you, then go for it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Always Leave the Campsite Better Than You Found It

Look guys, there are a LOT of horror movies out there. Sometimes the decision of which to watch can take longer than the actual running time of two combined (three if we're talking about those scratching-for-content Charles Band flicks). So when I see a good-enough-looking poster with actors I recognize and "masked madmen" in the description, I'm just diving right in.

When I realize that said film stars Mad Men's Ken Cosgrove and my head starts to imagine the eyepatch-wearing account man hunting with an axe, everything gets better.

Quick Plot: Mike (Aaron Staton) is taking his wife Wit (Wrenn Schmidt) and recently/suspiciously discharged brother Sean (SVU's Benson-stalking Pablo Schreiber) on a weekend camping trip off the grid. Between s'mores and bad cell phone reception, the trio enjoys one night of the beautiful outdoors before waking up the next morning robbed and marked.

Initially, Mike suspects his unstable brother has finally snapped. It takes a little more tension and a full dead dog later to reveal there are indeed masked killers lurking the woods, turning our would-be deer hunters into will-be hunted prey.

There's not a huge amount of originality in Preservation, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Mike and Wit are your standard educated couple grappling with the typical movie-relationship problems (workaholic, surprise pregnancy, being really good-looking) but Cosgrove--er, Staton and Schmidt are smart actors who project fully rounded and believable characters. Schreiber can sometimes get cast a little too over the top (I can't be the only one who checks my email when his ridiculous Pornstache shows up on Orange Is the New Black) but he finds the right balance between Sean's wounded veteran and manic sensibilities.

Before long, Preservation is one big hunt, and writer/director Christopher Denham (better known to me as Jim Meeks on the underrated show Manhattan) makes the most of his sprawling American wilderness setting. The reveal of the villains is handled with fairly creepy effectiveness, and Denham wisely leaves the weight of the story in the woods.

At its heart, Preservation is a simple hunting humans tale. The film sets up its themes a tad on the nose, beginning with vegan Wit being unable to shoot a deer and following the logical conclusion of that, well, not being the case down the line. Denham relies a little too heavily on certain cliches (namely, the "fight that pauses as the assumed victor looks away momentarily, only to turn around to see the presumed prey COMPLETELY VANISHED" which happens no less than four times) but his pacing is quick, his characters are weighty, and the action holds up for a brisk 90 minutes. I'll look forward to seeing more. 

High Points
While all three main performances are strong, special mention should be made for Wrenn Schmidt, who lends an impressively hefty weight to her role. In the realm of Stupid Young Rich People Go To The Backwoods And Die subgenre, it's refreshing to have a female lead who projects a believable sense of smarts and strength

Chekhov's Law of Bear Traps prevails!

Low Points
While Preservation's characters ultimately won me over, one's opening line being "do you want to watch that youtube video of the cat getting flushed down the toilet" makes for a pretty hard sell

Lessons Learned
You don't need a cell phone if you have a dog

Pregnant women are prone to projectile vomiting

A regular yoga routine will do wonders for your potential as a rock climber

Preservation isn't a game changer or fresh modern genre blast, but it's a good movie, one made with far more intelligence and skill than a whole lot of your other options streaming on Netflix. Those who enjoyed another couple-being-hunted flick from recent years (I'm avoiding naming it, as the reference provides a minor spoiler for Preservation) will find this one to be a perfect pairing. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Party Games

With films like Contracted and Plus One, IFC's Midnight division has been scooping up a nice little array of quality horror. Let's see if their track record holds up:

Quick Plot: Iris is not in a happy place. After her parents' death, the poor young woman has had to drop out of  college in order to care for her terminally ill younger brother. With no real source of income, she's struggling to pay for his medical expenses and deal with the horrors of organ donation waiting lists.

Hope is renewed by her doctor (The Wire's D'Angelo Barksdale, who may have been cannibalized on The Walking Dead but will always be D'Angelo Barksdale) who recommends Iris for a sort of philanthropic contest held by the mysterious Shep Lambrick (the delectable Jeffrey Combs, who will always be The Delectable Jeffrey Combs because he is awesomely delectable). The terms are vague, but it seems like a can't-lose for the nothing-left-to-lose that is Iris.

Naturally, the party is a delightful evening of slapstick, wordplay, and miscounted bullets leading to freeze frame.

Or not.

Iris arrives at a swanky mansion to meet a batch of dinner guests/recognizable character actors in the same boat. Among the potential players are Nebraska's delightful June  Squibb as a partially paralyzed senior, former adult actress Sasha Grey as a moody brat, Agent Peggy Carter's pal Enver Gjokaj, Future Creative Director Peggy Olsen's ex Abe, and Mr. McCallister himself, John Heard.

This is a pretty groovy party, and not JUST because it references my two favorite fictional Peggys.

Mr. Lambrick also throws a few extras to the table: his spoiled son Julian (Gotham's only positive note, Robin Lord Taylor) and a butler with even more skills than Tim Curry named Bevans.

Scattegories and Charades are sadly not on the itinerary.
Instead, Mr. Lambrick lures his guests into a rather terrifying game of Would You Rather, the more action-based alternative to Truth or Dare. It starts innocently enough. Would vegetarian Iris rather eat a steak  or give up $10,000? Would recovered alcoholic Mr. McCallister drink a glass of wine for $10,000 or scotch for $50,000?

This is only the practice round.
As you might guess (especially if you've seen the similarly themed and toned 13 Sins), the game escalates with each round, turning contestants against each other and forcing them to confront how far they'll go for a big bag of money. It's a compelling situation because most of us who weren't born Julian Lambrick probably know what it's like to dream of solving all your problems with cash. Like Iris, most of us would never want to willingly play along with inflicting pain (and possible death) on someone else, but when faced with the choices forced upon our characters, it's easy to understand why they act as they do.

Though not quite as clever as 13 Sins, Would You Rather? is another strong entry into, well, whatever this oddly popular subgenre of horror might be called. Director David Guy Levy has assembled a far stronger-than-you'd expect cast of actors who manage to create genuine characters with the absolute minimum exposition. We learn very little about most of the participants, and while I certainly wouldn't have objected to knowing more, the film doesn't suffer for it. The performances all come with the necessary weight to make their lives (and inevitable deaths) matter regardless of whether we know their individual backstories.

I enjoyed Would You Rather? quite a bit, though my ultimate rating suffers a little because 13 Sins came with a little more heft. Nevertheless, Would You Rather? is a smart enough flick, and yet another example of how there remains plenty of quality 21st century horror output to be found outside a movie theater.

High Points
At first, I though I'd be annoyed with the seemingly very typical 'outsider deux ex machina' fix that was teased, but Would You Rather? manages to deal with it in a far more interesting way than I was expecting

Low Points
Perhaps it's just that Robin Lord Taylor was the only good thing on Gotham, but his character's rather abrupt exit (it's not a spoiler, don't worry) was rather frustrating when he posed so much weird and icky potential

Lessons Learned
When attending a mysterious dinner party, consider wearing noiseless flats. You just never know
College is an important place, if only for teaching one the proper pronunciation of the word 'monsieur'

Another dinner party guest tip: avoid sitting next to Sasha Grey. Choose the Agent Carter guy instead

Would You Rather? isn't a game changer, but it's a solid little genre flick built on a strong cast that easily sells what could have been a rote premise. Just over 90 minutes, it's well worth a quick little stream when you're in the mood for good modern horror. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Melts In Your Mouth, Not On Mars

Sometimes it’s hard to decide if a film is worth writing about here on this blog. Sometimes I’ll rent a Very Long Wait, seemingly Doll’s House-ready DVD from Netflix with my notepad ready and waiting only to realize I have nothing to say and even less to remember about it ten minutes after the credits roll. On other days, I’ll queue up an action adventure movie with no pretense of blogging only to discover that includes Tim Curry hamming up a bizarre Eastern European accent, copious lasers, gorillas drinking martinis, and pretty much everything else that someone like me treasures in cinema.

I decided long ago that horror is a subjective term on these fronts (I didn’t do a month of Animals Doing Human Stuff for nothing you know) and don’t always require that genre classification for coverage. This leads us to today’s hard-to-finger flick, 2000’s Mission to Mars. Knowing it was directed (quite oddly) by Brian De Palma gave me some inkling that I might get some mileage. Realizing it was a Disney release put that into doubt. Seeing, within 20 minutes, a character caught in a windstorm, twisted like a rung out dishcloth and de-limbed and decapitated in the process made me think, “Oh! It’s dark stuff!”

Then discovering it got a PG rating made me question almost everything.

Quick Plot: In the near future of 2020, a bunch of astronauts have a barbecue to celebrate the imminent launch of the first manned mission to mars. More importantly, Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) is sad to NOT go to Mars because his wife, who was named Maggie, got sick and died before Jim and his wife, who was named Maggie, could go to Mars, a place Maggie, Jim’s dead wife, really wanted to go to (her space helmet would have read “Maggie”).

Note that I tell you about Jim and his wife (named Maggie) because the movie makes a point of doing so about 9 times within the first 9 minutes of its running time.

Anyway, sad Maggie-less Jim stays behind while Luke (Don Cheadle) heads up with a bunch of Russians. Just as the team discovers a trace of water, a brutal Tatooine-ish sandstorm hits, knocking out a few crew members and brutally DE-LIMBING another one.

Just your standard Act I ending for any PG-rated family flick.

After sending out a muddled transmission, Luke loses communication with earth, prompting a rescue mission manned by Jim (but not his dead wife Maggie), Woody (Tim Robbins, with the ominous “...And Tim Robbins credit), Woody’s wife Terri (Connie Nielsen), and Phil (Jerry “I’ll Always Be Vern” O’Connell). A rupture almost kills the crew, but some fast thinking by Jim (widower of Maggie) and a packet of prominently labeled Dr Pepper saves the day. Later, more mechanical trouble leads to a heavy Gravity-esque conclusion. Clearly, this ship didn’t pack enough soft drinks.

They did, thankfully, pack a whole lot of M&Ms. M&Ms are almost as important in this movie as Jim’s dead wife Maggie and her presumed favorite cola, Dr Pepper. 

I’m being rather hard on Mission To Mars and its rather odd product placement, but the fact that these items drew so much attention to themselves was simply too much not to note. One must wonder if the people at the M&Ms headquarters felt like this was their big chance to right the wrong of E.T.’s infamous Reese’s Pieces glory.

Anyway, back to the film at hand, I...have no real idea what to say. The script’s multiple writing credits is hardly surprising, since Mission To Mars jumps from tone to tone like an energetic kid who’s had too much soda and candy (well, specifically, Dr Pepper and original M&Ms). We go from earnest astronaut drama to heady sci-fi to body-ripping horror to Close Encounters whimsy. It’s rather dizzying.

Mission To Mars is not a cheap film. While some of its CGI heavy effects have aged tragically, the basic landscape of Mars looks fantastic. The cast is littered with Oscar nominated talent. The score is (maybe over-)composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone. And yet I have no idea what it adds up to.

I mentioned Close Encounters of the Third Kind earlier because that’s easily the closest companion piece I can think of. Both films have to balance the dark possibilities of the expanded universe with a more gentle perspective of embracing other life forms. Mission To Mars, unfortunately, just doesn’t feel like it earns its ending because the path to it has gone in so many directions. It’s an odd one. 

High Points
Well, there are a lot of GOOD things about this film. Great cast who can sell the occasionally terrible dialog (DID I MENTION THAT MY WIFE MAGGIE IS DEAD AND SHE WAS AN ASTRONAUT AND HER NAME WAS MAGGIE BUT SHE’S DEAD NOW?). Beautiful art direction. Believable sounding science...

Low Points
But, well, aside from not knowing who should be watching it, the film is also occasionally quite dull

Lessons Learned
In the future, young lotharios will dress like Danny Zuko

Some couples dance, but the cooler ones go to Mars

Evolution began with alligators, which turned into dinosaurs, which turned into wooly mammoths, which turned into buffalo

Nothing is impossible when you're millions of miles from earth in a giant face

I was curious to see how someone with Brian De Palma’s sensibilities would handle the bigger material of Mission To Mars. The answer is ultimately kind of blah. There are definitely sparks of intrigue in the film, but it’s ultimately more interesting to see what doesn’t work than what does. De Palma fans will enjoy spotting a few trademarks (including a long opening tracking shot) and space-centric sci-fi fans will appreciate a lot of the film’s touches, but the final product is a rather messy thing.